The Monster's on the Loose!!! #2: Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956)

Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956)
Dir.: Curt Siodmak
TC4P Rating: 4/9

Staying up late, well past midnight, before you have become used to doing so -- before you have even earned your night owl wings, so to speak -- can do strange things to your mind. As a kid, you can get a little punchy, as you fight back the curtain of sleep to try and stay up just a few precious extra minutes later than are probably good for you.

In my early days of learning where all of the good movies were on the local TV channels before cable and the VCR came into my life, my adventures took me past the witching hour with slowly increasing regularity around the far end of the age of eleven (and almost constantly so deeper into my twelfth year). I had by this time briefly met the onscreen versions of King Kong and Godzilla, I had sampled Harryhausen, and was just around the corner from seeing Star Wars in its original release (back when it was just called Star Wars; no one called it Episode IV: A New Hope then). And with my parents distracted by marital strife, eventually leading to a divorce that sickened me to my core (but which I know now was completely necessary, if only so that I could still have two parents living at the same time on this planet), I had begun to stay up later and later on Friday and Saturday nights.

Apart from our regular TV in the living room, we had a small, barely twelve-inch, black and white television that at some point ended up in the room that I shared with my little brothers. I would occasionally employ the device for some late night subterfuge, checking out old Tarzan and Jerry Lewis movies on the local CBS affiliate, along with episodes of The Saint, Kolchak the Night Stalker, and The New Avengers. Eventually, I would move over to the room next door on my own, and the TV went with me. (That little TV that could stayed with me for over thirty years, and I chiefly employed it for editing tapes together or watching old movies that would not be affected by a lack of color. and was still working just fine in 2009 when the transition from regular transmission to all digital took place. I was finally convinced that I didn't need it anymore.)

On my own, in my own room, my late night forays became more and more frequent. Once my dad left the house, it was every other weekend (since we split between his place and our old house), but eventually, I got up the nerve to convince him that I should get to stay up a little later in slightly increasing amounts, you know, given the fact that I was four years older than my brother Mark. Why should I go to bed at the same time? I am almost a teenager, dammit! Of course, my homework were suffering as a consequence, because all I could do was think about movies, especially ones involving either monsters or comedy. Who could study?

Staying up late to watch a 10:00 p.m. movie on a Saturday night was not the problem. It depended on the movie, and also the time of the year. Both of my parents took little convincing when I got to stay up to watch what they perceived to be a quality film like The Birds or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, or even The Valley of Gwangi or The Great Race. After all, in those pre-video days, that was really the only way to see some of those films again, or even for the first time, in my case. But midnight (or just after) for a ten-year-old kid in our house seemed to be the cutoff. But now that a slightly older me was pushing the bubble ever more, and with my mom upstairs with an entire other level of house between us, I started extending those late night visits. Soon enough, two or three in the morning was my regular Saturday night bedtime (I still went to bed fairly early, around midnight or so, on Fridays, because I needed to be up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons), but those extra couple of hours on Saturday night (often spent continuing to graze on the amazing pizza of which my mom had made a Saturday tradition in our home) opened up a whole other level of movie to me.

Beverly Garland, "Doctor Andrea Romar"
in Curucu, Beast of the Amazon
I have written about The World's Most Terrible Movies show on this website at length, which is where I discovered Hammer horror films and any number of genre classics over a several year period. I won't go into more of that show in great detail right now; you can do a search here on the Pylon to find the series of articles and video clips that I have posted about and from that show. But I will add that there was a chief defining element of most of the films showed on The World's Most Terrible Movies, the simple component that kept me coming back begging for more each weekend, is that the films usually paid off huge on their promises. You know, the way that you come to expect in monster movies.

When you were promised dinosaurs, you got dinosaurs; when you were promised monsters, you got monsters. It didn't matter how cheapjack the special effects were in some of the Hercules movies they showed; you believed in the effects because they sold the fantasy well enough that any element in the film in turn became the reality within the story. Sold! Not every film had a Harryhausen to orchestrate epic monster battles; they often had to rely on a guy-in-a-suit, and if the characters in the film believed that the guy in that suit was a monster, and if the guy in the monster suit believed that he was that monster, that was good enough for me.

But there was one definite outlier in the lot, and it was conspicuous by its failure to play nicely along with such promises as the other monster movies made. One film that I discovered on this post-midnight gem of a programming slot did indeed (as I discussed in the prologue to this article here) have a more than usual affect on me heading into the rest of my life on this planet. That film was 1956's Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, and it was sold by its distributing company, Universal Pictures, to the general public as a monster film crossed with a jungle picture. Here's the trailer:

What sets Curucu, Beast of the Amazon apart from the other films that I have mentioned here, or even the cadre of Hammer flicks that I also discovered on that show, is that Curucu sucks. By the time of its big reveal, Curucu was disappointing then to me as an eleven-year-old, and it is disappointing now. Even taken at face value for what it is -- a basic jungle murder mystery with a monster that turns out to be an Amazonian native in an elaborate monstrous costume, and not even a particularly good or even scary one -- Curucu is underwhelming. But it is precisely because of this fact, and the subterfuge played on the viewer of this film, that this disappointing film stuck with me for the rest of my life in a way far more memorable than films many times its superior.

Paul Simon sang in a tone appropriated satirically from Bob Dylan that he had been "Robert McNamara'd into submission"; well, at a very tender age, I was already used to being "Scooby-Doo'd". I adored the Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! cartoon show since I was five, but one thing that regularly pissed me off about it was that the monster was always -- ALWAYS -- revealed to be a guy wearing a mask. (And sometimes just a stupid though convincing mask, though most often there was a full costume involved.) Regardless, it was a pain to be consistently shown some really cool ghost or creature (hell, some of them glowed!), and have all of this slapstick chaos and thrills built around its rampaging and scaring the Scooby snacks out of Scooby and Shaggy, and then have the really cool ghost or creature turn out to be, to sneak in an old Sifl and Olly gag here, "just some dude." (Their answer to the riddle, "What do you call the mailman when he loses his job?") Not that I ever tired of the famous "meddling kids" line, but eventually, it became too much. Just once, and it would come many, many years down the line as they attempted to revamped the series here and there and finally realized that their audience wouldn't hack the same explanation anymore, I wanted a real monster on Scooby-Doo.

But up to this point, the monsters in the movies were all real to me. Yeah, I knew that vampires and werewolves were actors in costumes and makeup, and yeah, I knew Godzilla was a guy in a suit and that the original King Kong was animated by some goddamned genius. I wasn't blind to the technical applications involved in making movies. I just believed in the stories they were telling me, and part of my enjoyment of those stories was in imaging that all of these wonderful creations were real within the worlds in which they existed. Godzilla stomped Tokyo, and he was real within Tokyo. He didn't suddenly take his head off and smoke a cigarette (as cool as that might have been to see). King Kong really climbed the Empire State Building, really fought pterodactyls, and really killed a Tyrannosaurus Rex by snapping its jaws wide open with a sickening crunch. A mere werewolf's bite or even scratch could turn you into one of the same ravenous kind, and Dracula really sucked the blood of voluptuous virgins (because, why not, if you can?) All of this was explained in the movies as possible and real, and I took no little pleasure in believing all of it.

At the start of Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, the filmmakers basically break the time-honored "code of the monster movie" immediately. In the vast majority of monster flicks, the monster, except for a few quick suggestions, goes largely unseen until the final third of the film. His alleged crimes mount up against the populace, but he is generally undiscovered to be the true source of the terror until much further along. And once he is out of the bottle, that genie can't go back into it. He is on the loose and rampaging and rending and destroying, and everyone does everything they can to stop him. It's been seen a zillion times, even in Jaws. Suggestion, buildup, more suggestion, more buildup, discovery of the actual creature, rampage, action, and ultimately, the victory of the humans over the monster(s). There are variations on this, of course, but its the standard. Though I often rail about how little variety there seems to be within the monster formula, the employment of suspense has roots that lie deep in the history of the narrative form. While storytellers are free, and encouraged, to toy with such formulas at their leisure, it may be at the expense of the story they are tying to tell. But done right -- for instance, in a film like Tremors, which plays with the formula in grand ways, but never fully ditches it -- it can be elating and wonderful.

And for me, pulling this off still requires allowing the audience to continue to believe in this supernatural silliness in the name of entertainment (regardless of my real world feelings towards such concerns). Tell me there is a monster, and I hope that by film's end, there has been or still is a monster; not some guy wearing a Scooby-Doo mask.

But I doubt there were any concerns of this nature on the part of Curucu's primary creator, director and screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who should have known better. He did know better. Siodmak wrote the screenplay for The Wolf Man, amongst many other latter day Universal Monster pictures, and he also gave us the original novel of Donovan's Brain, well-regarded among the science fiction set and itself adapted into three separate films. Siodmak knew his stuff; he could add thrills to even the most hackneyed situations, and looking over his filmography which is loaded with fun and even influential pictures (he even acted in Lang's Metropolis in 1927), he certainly understood the rules of the suspense and horror game. But before I go further into Siodmak in this discussion, let's get back to the start of Curucu, Beast of the Amazon.

"Me want Coooooookie!!!"
The film's rather staid credits sequence seeks to throw us off the track of the murder that is about to open the story by showing us dull shots of cattle being driven and eventually rounded up in a corral. The action begins along the Amazon itself (or what may be one of its tributaries; it really doesn't matter). The very first narrative shot of the film is of the clawed paws of the beast known as Curucu itself, as it parts the foliage of the set-bound jungle to peer in a slavering fashion (we assume at this point) at a lone female gathering water at the riverside. She looks about cautiously, and then turns back to the jungle path, all of which we see through the monster's POV, its paws parting the fronds once again in case we didn't catch what he was up to the first time. The paws are fairly ridiculous looking, and remind me very much of Muppet paws on one of their oversized monster characters. Or one of Sendak's Wild Things.

"I have come to fetch the waaaaateerrr..."
The girl stops short of the foliage, however, as she spies oddly shaped footprints in the sand on the embankment. This momentary distraction, though, will proof fatal, as the beast starts making a wild, panting ruckus, and then lashes out with his giant claws. We also get a closeup of his face: a wild-eyed visage of blue, red, and yellow (at least in the terribly colored print that I have) with two massive tusks sticking straight up on either side of its face. Curucu lashes out, the girl screams, a water jug is dropped, and the girl dies.

Enter lantern-jawed John Bromfield as plantation owner Rock Dean... that's right. Rock Dean. Go drink a stupid energy drink, and once your testosterone level has shot up enough to make you take that name in again, do so. Rock Dean. Mr. Dean is told by a police captain that his workmen have all fled the plantation back into the jungle, and then the captain shows him why. Rock Dean is brought to the shroud-covered body of the dead girl. She is the fifth victim of the monster so far, who is described by Tupanico, a local who is a friend of Rock Dean's, describes it as "a beast with claws like that of a giant bird." The captain, betraying that his head is filled with what gives Rock Dean his first name, says "A crocodile, perhaps?" Tupanico replies, "A crocodile is no bird." It is at this point that Tupanico relays that many of the locals believe the monster to be "one of those that lives behind the falls in Curucu."

Is this the track of the horrid Curucu? Or is it
Jesus carrying the horrid Curucu across the sand?
Curucu, Beast of the Amazon is definitely unique from most other '50s monster films in one important aspect: it was largely filmed on location in the region where it is taking place, and except for interior scenes, relies very little on traditional sets of the Hollywood variety. Much of the location shooting seems to be right on the edge of real jungle, the plantation shots are really on a plantation, and the hordes of Amazonian locals are just that. And so the film, in between "monster" attacks, gives us plenty of local color: dance sequences, aerial shots of the Amazonian basin, aerial shots of cities, planes landing at a Rio airport, Rock Dean going about his business in a real car on real city streets.

Curucu!
Rock Dean is upset because the murders are causing the locals to flee to the jungles. It seems to me that if there was a jungle monster killing random people, the better plan would be to flee to the cities, but I'm not from the Amazon. Rock Dean goes to Rio and meets with his fellow plantation owners to try and figure out how to stop losing their workers. Rock Dean, because he is Rock Dean, hatches a plan to travel up the Amazon River to the Curucu Falls, because that is where the legend of the monster is derived, solve the mystery of the monster, and bring his workers back with him. "Monsters that live at the Curucu Falls and come down the river?" says one of the owners incredulously. Rock Dean is told he is "talking suicide", which it wouldn't be if there is no such thing as monsters, but he commits to his plan. And, yes, none of this makes a lick of sense.

Rock Dean, in a scene where he is dressed in nothing but his tighty whities, gets a medical checkup before embarking on his suicidal plan to find monsters. Enter a blonde doctor doll named Andrea Romar, played by Beverly Garland, the best known name in the cast. Within seconds, Rock Dean and Dr. Romar are on a nightclub date. We get dancing, cigarettes, flirting, more dancing, and then suddenly the doctor tries to turn the discussion to cancer research. Dr. Romar is interested in a drug that the natives use in preparing shrunken heads. Enter Vivian, the nightclub dancer, and seeming rival to Rock Dean's affections. Caught between Rock Dean and hard place, Dr. Romar takes him to the dance floor alone to convince him to take her on his suicidal journey to the Curucu Falls. He refuses and they part ways.

Curucu!!! With claws this time
(and two extra exclamation points)...
We jump, via a title card, to the "Port of Belem, Gateway to the Amazon". Rock Dean meets up with Tupanico, whom we learn is, despite his modern dress and ways, is actually the son of a native chieftain. In fact, he is from the area where the Curucu Falls lies. I think you know where this is going. Rock Dean tries to hire Tupanico for his trip, but he has been beaten to the punch by Dr. Romar. They bicker over him, but Rock Dean loses the battle. We then get harbor scenes where boats are being prepared to travel up the Amazon. After this brief montage, Rock Dean shows up at Dr. Romar's boat to travel with her and Tupanico.

The journey begins. The boat travel is slow and leisurely, allowing for plenty of stock shots of flora and fauna. Crocodiles threaten all around their boats, and piranhas attack any animals that already attacked the travelers after they have been dispatched. As the band cruise along in their canoe, the edge of which rests about two inches from the water, this exchange happens:

Dr. Andrea Romar: Are there any fish?
Rock Dean: Thousands of 'em. Every one of them a killer.
Tupanico: Piranha.
Romar: I've seen some of those at the aquarium in Rio. Terrible looking things. All teeth.
Tupanico: They can eat the flesh off a man in sixty seconds.

These things stick with you when you are eleven years old and pretty much seeing such things for the first time. Things given as facts get lodged, and you have to find out the truth years later.

Not nearly as tasty as Captain Hook...
A snake drops from the trees and into the center of the canoe. Tupanico deftly snaps up the snake (described as "poisonous" not venomous) and tosses it casually into the river, where the "thousands" of piranhas make a meal of it. A pair of crocodiles advance on the canoe, and Rock Dean engages one of them in battle with his oar. The croc gives up on the oar, growls, and turns back on the boat. Rock takes the croc out with a couple of blasts from his shotgun, and the piranha get another easy meal. As the explorers switch to land to traverse through the thick jungle, we get shots of iguanas and even more snakes. We also see natives tracking the progress of the white intruders, and eventually there is a confrontation. Luckily, Rock Dean and Tupanico are practiced in dealing with the locals, and peace is attained.

But suddenly, there is the beating of drums in the distance, and Rock Dean recognize the beat as a sign that someone in a nearby village is sick. "Sick? That's my department!" yells Dr. Romar and she tries to spring to admirable action, but Rock Dean -- because he is a M-A-N of his time -- tells her sharply, "It's no job for a woman!" (He does add, "The witch doctor will be offended and he'll lose face," but still, you get the point.) Naturally, Doc Romar rushes to the native's side and realizes he is probably suffering from appendicitis. She gives him some meds and the man feels a bit better and smiles at her. Rock Dean says something stupid and obvious: "According to Indian custom, you are now responsible for this man's life." Well, yeah, Rock Dean. She's a goddamned doctor. I think that is why she does her job in the first place. They have that oath thing, you know.

Where the hipster weird beard craze really started...
They move the native to a nearby makeshift hospital, where the lovely doctor performs surgery on him. While they want to press on with their journey, they are advised by a priest to stay with the man until he is much better. Meanwhile, Curucu has made another kill. A male this time, walking alone in the jungle. Of course, from the way that the camera makes no bones about showing Curucu directly on each time, it is patently obvious that Curucu is not actually a monster, but because of this obviousness, it now feels to me that we are being set up for a short fall, rather than the long one that I felt when I first saw this film. Or maybe I am just older and more practiced in these things. Kids today would not be fooled for a second. But at age eleven in 1976, before home video would open up the world of movies for me, I really bought into this in the middle of the night. This is what I had.

The man is brought to the hospital, and when Tupanico shouts about the monster, the priest admonishes him -- hilariously -- for believing in such "superstition" as jungle monsters. (Well, I find it hilarious and ironic. That's my thing. You may not.) Tupanico says, "You know the legend of the Curucu monster, padre, who descends from the falls to punish the people who deserted the lands of their fathers." The padre decries this twaddle as "devil worship and voodoo" and begs those assembled to "pray for the light". Dr. Romar tells the priest about her need to find the native "headhunting" formula to aid her research, and Tupanico reaffirms his oath to help her get to his tribe to find it.

"Hey, octopuses ain't the only thing that got
eight arms to hold ya! How 'bout a kiss?"
Suddenly, the natives arrive to collect their hospitalized brother. At the front of them is their witch doctor, who was shown briefly earlier, but is now seen to full effect. He has a mask that to me looks like he auditioned at some point for the Mr. Men children's book and cartoon series, as he wears an outfit that to my eyes is utterly ridiculous. Though I guess by jungle standards, the costume is probably considered quite sophisticated. (It does have a three-dimensional mouth, after all.) Though it first looks like he is planning to attack them, Tico, the sick native, gives Dr. Romar a large knife as a gift. (Perhaps don't hold it high in the air as you approach them, Tico, if it is a gift.)

Rock Dean: He's making you a present of the knife.
Dr. Romar: Thank you. Thank you very much, Tico.
Father Flaviano: It's a sacrificial knife. The headhunters use those.
Rock Dean: Since you've accepted his gift, he's your slave from now on.
Dr. Romar: [giggles] Oh, that's charming. What am I going to do with a slave?

Monster? Just looks like first grader pee to me...
I don't know, Dr. Romar. You're white; I am sure you will figure it out. It's also telling that you think slavery is charming. But really, the slave thing seems to be more ceremonial, since Tico immediately leaves with the witch doctor and his fellow tribesman right away, despite Dr. Romar's protestations. Rock Dean and party head back on the trail to make their way to the falls. The film becomes a parade of animal action for about five minutes. They run into a large herd of wild buffalo and have to climb into the trees to avoid being trampled. While still up high, they see a coatimundi fighting for its life with a small constrictor. While the coatimundi looks doomed for sure, at the last second, he extricates himself from the snake's coiled embrace. Dr. Romar finds a sloth hanging on a tree trunk, and then plays (stupidly, I might add) with a small jungle cat's kitten that she happens upon. She then finds a small monkey that gets some attention briefly as well.

"Guess who?"
Back at the tent, while she and Rock Dean are eating some iguana dish for lunch, they are joined by a large black tarantula. After a failed, "romantic" grab-her-roughly-and-kiss-her attack by Rock Dean, he takes his frustrations out on the spider, dropping it with a blast from his ever-present shotgun. (Either they had a dead spider to throw on the ground, or they really killed one, because it looks pretty real. And as I mentioned, they didn't have the budget to make a convincing monster costume, so why would they spend it on a spider with such exacting detail?) They are then joined by Tupanico, who retrieves the rifle because there is a commotion out on the river. It seems there is a large orangish shadow moving just below the surface of the water. Tupanico shoots twice at the mysterious shadow, and it slowly moves away down the river.

Dr. Romar: What do you think it was?
Rock Dean: I don't know.
Dr. Romar: Looked like a giant river serpent. Huh... seems like anything's possible in this part of the Amazon.
Rock Dean: I don't believe in snakes a hundred feet long. Not even in the Amazon.
Dr. Romar: That was no hallucination.
Rock Dean: Might have been anything. Could have been a school of luminous fish.

The terrible truth about ChristianMingle.com...
The porters absolutely refuse to go any further on the journey because of the river shadow. They run off, but one of them attacks Rock Dean. Rock Dean defeats him and the native runs off. Down to just three in their party now, Rock Dean, the doctor, and Tupanico make camp and settle down for the night. With the doctor catching her beauty sleep in her tent, Rock Dean heads out into the jungle with his trusty gun (and that is not a colorful euphemism, though it might as well be) given back to him by Tupanico. While Dr. Romar sleeps, there is movement outside of her tent. We see the now familiar three-clawed hand of the beast Curucu part the folds of the tent. The flap is folded back, and we see the creature in his full, multi-colored glory as he starts to creep into the tent.

Frazzle Monster looked so much more put
together when he got to Sesame Street...
The camera switches to a POV shot of the monster's claws (I can't help but think of The Soupy Sales Show) as they advance on her throat. The doctor wakes up just in time and screams several times as the beast grabs her and shakes her, the camera still in a POV position. Rock Dean hears the noise and heads back. We see, in a lot of shadow, some rather effective shots of Curucu carrying Dr. Romar through the jungle swiftly, her body limp in its arms, her blonde hair nearly brushing the ground at times. Finally, Rock Dean runs into the monster and tries to shoot it, but his shots are of no effect at all. Curucu tries to rend Rock Dean with his razor sharp claws, and he roars furiously as he does. In desperation, Rock Dean raises his gun over his head and brings it down on the head of Curucu (out of frame). And then Rock Dean realizes the truth...

Tupanico totally drops character...
... and so do we, a little over 48 minutes into the movie. There is a shocked look on Rock Dean's face, and the camera cuts from his face to Curucu, where we see the savage, murderous creature slowly strip off his mask and costume to reveal... Tupanico. There is no monster; at least, there is no monster as we would categorize it normally. Just a man in a costume. Monster enough for my consideration in most cases (I am far more scared of mankind than any other creature that could exist), but in a supposed monster movie, it is a severe letdown. The supposedly civilized and Christianized native runs back into the jungle, leaving the Curucu costume behind at Rock Dean's feet. Doc Romar lies on the ground (from fainting, of course, 'cause that's what ladies usually did in old monster movies did most of the time when carried off by a monster), and Rock Dean picks her up and gently brings her back to the camp. Later, as she has come to, the pair return to the costume and examine it.

Dr. Romar: Feathers, bone, and teeth.
Rock Dean: Claws like razors!
Dr. Romar: In Africa, the headhunters... they use claws for murder! Why? Why is Tupanico doing this?
Rock Dean: I don't know. I thought I knew him... but I don't. And his voice, his face... he even put blanks in my gun. That's the reason he insisted on cleaning it.
Dr. Romar: What about the monster in the river?
Rock Dean: Tupanico's been around. He might have picked up a trick like that.
Dr. Romar: Trick?
Rock Dean: Might have been metal parting the water. Who knows?

"Now, exactly how many bases can I get to
before I lose 'hero' status in this picture?"
So, we have lost our monster, and title character for that matter, and so what does a monster movie do when the monster part has been obliterated and there are still twenty minutes left in the film? Why, generic jungle action, of course! Suddenly, Rock Dean and Doctor Romar hear a strange cry, and then a tribe of headhunters swoops in and kidnaps them into the dark of the jungle. They walk for ages, and are eventually taken to the picturesque waterfalls that are standing in for the legendary Curucu Falls. The natives throw the pair roughly into a hut in a small village and free their bonds.

They are eventually taken to a ceremony, where a gaudily dressed native woman does a snake dance to the measured but insistent beat of the jungle drums. Tupanico eventually reveals himself, and tells them that his name means "god" in the native language, thereby implying that there is no way he will pay for the murders he has committed in the guise of Curucu, for his people will protect him to the death. However, he gives Doctor Romar the formula she has been searching for in order to help her disease research. "You see," he says, "I am also a humanitarian and an idealist. I also want to make people happy." Rock Dean calls him on this dichotomy, but Tupanico stresses that it was necessary to protect his people from the encroachment of modern civilization. He has spent years trying to get his people to return to the jungle, and to keep them away from the modern world's temptations such as alcohol.

Super closeup of piranha jaws. My guess is they
are doing something eating-related...
While Rock Dean and Tupanico argue, another tribe has arrived and attacks the village. They set fire to the huts and begin to battle the Curucu headhunters. Rock Dean and the doctor take advantage of the distraction and make their escape, but the doctor loses the formula in the process. The pair are seen walking across the streams at the foot of the falls before heading back into the jungle. Soon, Doctor Romar collapses from exhaustion, and Rock Dean revives her with juice from a local fruit. They make it to a river where they find a raft on the shore, but as they attempt to board, they are attacked by a native who has been spying on them from the trees. Rock Dean engages him in combat, and Doc Romar chops at the native's legs with the oar, giving Rock Dean the chance to knock the man out for good. The native falls unconscious to the floor of the raft, his arm flopping over the side and into the water. As they push the raft off to float away, there is a shot of ravenous piranhas, tearing the flesh of the native's arm to bits.

Yup! That's what they were doing, alright...
When they land downstream a good while later, Rock Dean notices that the native's arm is now nothing but bone in the river. The pair start to cut their way through the thick jungle again, once more passing a giant snake in a tree. Rock Dean is immediately jumped by a ferocious jaguar, but he has a surprisingly brief battle with the creature, wrestling it for a few seconds and then killing it with his machete. In what seems like mere seconds later, they are distracted by a pair of fighting and snorting peccaries, and while they are watching, an anaconda drops down from the trees above and wraps Doctor Romar in its unbreakable embrace. But Rock Dean grabs the snake by the neck and struggles mightily against its powerful coils to free the doctor, chopping over and over at the snake with his machete until it is dead.

Kinda looks like Christopher Lee as Dracula...
They carry on through the jungle, and just before bad weather hits them, they make it to their old campsite. Rock Dean goes out briefly to find some food while the doctor rests on the cot. But she starts to have nightmares of natives surrounding her in the tent, and she screams. Rock Dean runs to her side, and seeing no one else in the tent, they start to kiss, in that rough way that heroes in B movies do when the lady finally gives in to him. A short while later, while Rock Dean is napping, Doctor Romar grabs the machete to collect some fruit. She sees a native in the trees and screams. She wakes up 48 hours later with the face of Father Flaviano staring down at her. She is back at the hospital, and she was brought there by her now "slave for life," Tico, and Rock Dean, her clothes in tatters. She and Rock Dean are reunited, and as they make out again, Tico enters the room to bring her another gift. It is the formula she thought that she lost, rescued from the burning hut by Tico, as it was his tribe that attacked Tupanico and his headhunters. And to give the film a final zinger, Tico has another gift for her. He reaches in the basket and pulls out a shrunken head... the now tiny head of Tupanico, with his eyes closed and his lips sewn shut. THE END.

I will admit that after I first saw Curucu, Beast of the Amazon at the age of eleven, I was pretty taken with the film as far as a jungle adventure went. I had seen a few Tarzan films (having gotten into the novels over the previous couple of years, along with Burroughs' John Carter and Pellucidar series), and also films like Stanley and Livingstone and King Solomon's Mines. But I think Curucu was the first jungle picture I remember seeing that had South America as its location, and I really liked the scenery and the array of wildlife that the film portrayed. The explorers run into animal after animal, and while that is fairly ridiculous, to me at the time it wasn't. But there is that lingering disappointment in the revelation that the monster was just a murderous human being, which does still count towards being a form of monster, but not the one advertised as appearing in this picture.

But, of course, I had already run into many precedents to the actions taken in this film. I also was into Sherlock Holmes at this point in my young life, and my favorite Holmes story was, entirely because of its monstrous overtones, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Once again, the film sets us up with rumors of a horrid creature haunting a certain location, whose supposed supernatural appearance as a "hound from Hell" induces a heart attack in a member of the Baskerville estate. The mystery is eventually sussed out, and the "monster" is revealed to be nothing but a very large dog painted with phosphorus to give it a ghostly atmosphere which frightened Sir Charles Baskerville to death. This, of course, is nothing but the doings of an ordinary human, a secreted Baskerville relation and criminal who was set upon murdering the other heirs to the estate.

There were likely, in my youthful reading experience to that point, many other examples of such turnarounds in stories beginning with supernatural leanings and atmosphere that devolved, in my opinion, into real life commonalities, including Scooby-Doo. I read mystery series like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Trixie Belden as a kid (yeah, I liked some of the "girl" series too), and it was likely that there were setups where it seemed initially to be something spooky or ghostly in origin, but the stories were so often about espionage and bank robbers that I couldn't pinpoint this to be true after having not seen the books for so many years. But I read an awful lot around that age, so I should have been used to such unremarkable revelations by that point (and especially, now). But I really was not happen with it after seeing Curucu. It just seemed too cruel of a switch, especially after being so excited to see a jungle picture that had a monster right in the title.

As precedents go (though I did not see these examples until after Curucu) director Curt Siodmak had a couple of other passes at a similar concept -- where the supernatural elements are revealed (or are they?) to be purely within the mind's eye of one of the characters. The oldest of the two is the rather well-known Robert Florey thriller, The Beast with Five Fingers, from 1946. The film sports a magnificently charismatic Peter Lorre in a supporting role while the supposedly disembodied hand of a famous pianist torments him, and the set design, camerawork, and special effects serve the film magnificently. When I think of The Beast with Five Fingers, it is hard for me to not to recall it immediately as a true classic of the horror genre.

But, The Beast of Five Fingers has that annoying conclusion -- that admittedly kind of cool but annoying conclusion -- where after ninety minutes of not just Lorre but an entire household being convinced that a creeping, crawling something is running amok, choking people to death (and probably causing scuff marks on the floor and furniture), it is revealed that Lorre is the actual murderer. He has convinced himself that the severed hand is a tangible threat, and has gone insane because of this belief. Such a conclusion may seem fine and even necessary to sensibilities attuned to needing real world explanations, but to a monster fan, especially after having such a wonderful and atmospheric buildup (itself inspired heavily by German Expressionistic techniques), it is grandly disappointing.

Siodmak was only responsible for the screenplay for The Beast with Five Fingers, itself adapted from a classic William Fryer Harvey short story of the same title, though one with a decidedly different conclusion. (Nor does it have even a trace of a pianist within it; the original owner of the hand is a beloved man of the cloth.) In the short story, more than one person has dealings with the disembodied hand, though the story concentrates mainly on two characters. At the story's end, there is the implication that the hand's actions have resulted in the death of one of the characters. While mass hallucination is brought up early in the text, the details of the story afterward point to only one conclusion: that the hand, through whatever supernatural agency, is alive and determined to revenge itself upon the nephew of the hand's original owner, and that multiple people have not only had dealings with the hand, but have indeed seen it.

Siodmak's screenplay switched the focus of the film to more psychological grounds, supposedly at Florey's behest, and I cannot say that the film is worse for it. It is a solid concept -- letting the talented Lorre go slowly insane onscreen was always a sure bet -- and I should be happy with it. But because The Beast with Five Fingers set itself up as a truly memorable entertainment, it seemed like betrayal when I finally got the chance to see the film for the first time. And it still seems like betrayal today. I can't get around the feeling when I watch it each time.

The other Siodmak example, of what I am now terming "The Monster Switch," is 1951's Bride of the Gorilla, like Curucu, both written and directed by Siodmak this time. The film revolves around Raymond Burr getting "cursed" to turn into a horrid beast -- specially a jungle demon called a sukara -- and then committing murders in this guise. The ape in the title is a misnomer, because while the sukara looks somewhat like a guy in a cheap gorilla suit, it is not actually supposed to be a gorilla. And, as it turns out, Burr's character -- who is engaged to a voluptuous blonde played by Barbara Payton, hence the Bride portion of the title -- is not really a sukara. He has been poisoned, and while the drug causes him to go wild and commit the murders, his transformation into the beast is wholly within his mind. No one actually sees the beast, nor his hairy hands, nor his wild visage reflected in the water -- just Burr.

Original Reynold Brown artwork not used
for the poster. His other art was though...
While it has been largely derided over the years, by almost any measure, the earlier Bride of the Gorilla is a better film than Curucu. It has a rock-solid lead performance by Burr (who, as usual, never wavers in his commitment to lesser material), and surprisingly fine support from Lon Chaney, Jr. as Police Commissioner Taro, in a role not remotely in line with his actual heritage. ("How can I help but be confused? My native mind is filled with these superstitions," he laments at one point.) Still, it's nice to see him steadfastly on the side of the law in this one. And Payton looks just fine as the object of Burr's character's understandable lust (hey, she's hot enough to convince him that he is turning into a ravenous sukara over her).

Bride of the Gorilla has also been described on numerous sites and in books as being more connected to the Val Lewton mold, whose films concentrated almost completely on suggestion to build its slow-boiling suspense. Though, yes, examples can be found in Lewton's work where there are moments of outright horror -- such as the jolting and sudden appearance of the titular character in I Walked with a Zombie (also co-scripted by Siodmak, so he had worked under Lewton at a certain point), the shocking asylum conditions in Bedlam, and the murderous antics of Karloff and Lugosi in The Body Snatcher -- Lewton understood that less is often more in terms of suspense, and that the viewer's imagination can be employed as a far more powerful tool for the filmmaker than anything that could be shown outright.

I don't necessarily agree with the Lewton assessment regarding Bride, but I can see the connection. However, Lewton would likely not have allowed the hero to so openly envision his hand to be covered in fur as Siodmak does here in Bride, nor would he have allowed for the scene at the close where we and the other characters clearly see Burr is himself, dying from gunshot wounds with his clothes tattered to shreds, but Burr sees his reflection as the jungle demon in the pond water, and then slowly it dissolves to his normal face.

In most cases, emulating Lewton is probably a very grand thing to attempt. You are still probably going to end up somewhat afield of how he would have controlled the results, but it can be a noble gesture. But then you get to the pure monster movie fan, of whom I count myself among their number. We may indeed appreciate the building of suspenseful moments, but we are also coming to these films with one goal in mind: seeing a monster, doing horrible monster things like rampaging and killing men left and right without remorse, or even being completely misunderstood by humanity and blundering animal-like into situations that will certainly spell its eventual doom.

I came to Curucu, Beast of the Amazon with precisely this intention in mind. I came for a monster of a time, still had some thrills but not exactly what I hoped for, and ended up with a shrunken head. I guess somewhere in that statement is a metaphor for most of life's disappointments, so I should be used to it by now. In the words of Vonnegut (who never disappointed me), and so it goes...

RTJ


[My apologies for some of the direct movie pix in this post. They were taken from a low-grade, nonofficial DVD of Curucu, Beast of the Amazon that I acquired from one of those cheap companies on the internet. You know, the ones that specialize in selling films that have never had an official DVD release. It wasn't expensive, and it shows it. It's nice they took enough time to include both a color and a black and white version of the film, but since both prints are pretty obnoxiously terrible, it really doesn't feel like I have seen the actual film again. Also, the disc print is just over a 1 hour, 11 minute running time, while the listed time for the film on IMDb is 76 minutes. There are a few rough jumps in the color print, so it is likely that some plot elements have been left out in my synopsis. If I ever see a nice, shiny, full print of the film, I will revise this piece to reflect the full movie.

Also, while the disc opens automatically in a false aspect ratio, the image itself was better suited to 4:3, so I captured the pix that way. I guess that I will have to wait until Svengoolie has a repeat again to see a somewhat decent print (though cut up with commercials. Yes, I have spent thousands of words belittling this film, but please, somebody officially release it onto DVD or blu-ray!]

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